Former French Priest Convicted of Sexual Abuse of Minors

Father Preynat led a scouting camp until 1991, when parents accused him of abuse to the Lyon-Vienne archdiocese.

Cathedral of Lyon.
Cathedral of Lyon. (photo: Shutterstock)

LYON, France — Father Bernard Preynat, a former priest of the Archdiocese of Lyon, was convicted and sentenced by a civil court Monday for the sexual abuse of minors.

He abused dozens of minors between 1971 and 1991, and he had been found guilty by an ecclesiastical tribunal last year.

He was charged with sexual assault of 10 minors from 1986 to 1991.

He was found guilty, and sentenced March 16 to five years in prison. He could have been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, and prosecutors sought eight years.

Allegations against Father Preynat, 75, became public in 2015. Prosecutors dropped the case the following year after an initial investigation, but a victims’ group with more than 80 members who say they were abused by Father Preynat led to a reopening of the case.

Preynat led a scouting camp until 1991, when parents accused him of abuse to the Lyon-Vienne archdiocese. He was then banned from leading scouting groups, but remained in ministry until being removed by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, then-Archbishop of Lyon, in 2015.

An ecclesiastical trial against Father Preynat was opened in August 2018, and he was convicted in July 2019 of committing delicts of a sexual character against minors under the age of 16. He was sentenced to dismissal from the clerical state.

“In view of the facts and their recurrence, the large number of victims, the fact that Father Bernard Preynat abused the authority conferred on him by his position within the scout group that he had founded and which he led since its creation, assuming the dual responsibility of head and chaplain, the tribunal decided to apply the maximum penalty provided for by the law of the Church, namely dismissal from the clerical state,” the Lyon archdiocese stated July 4, 2019.

At his civil trial in Lyon Jan. 14, Father Preynat acknowledged “caressing” boys, saying, “it could be four or five children a week.”

“I have heard the suffering of these people, which I'm guilty of causing,” he said. “I hope that this trial can take place as quickly as possible.”

He has been accused of abusing some 80 boy scouts who were between 7 and 15, beginning in the 1970s, but many of the incidents had passed the statute of limitations.

Father Preynat's trial was to have begun Jan. 13, but was delayed a day so lawyers could participate in a protest of planned pension reforms.

In 2017, Cardinal Barbarin told Le Monde that he did not conceal allegations against Preynat, but that his response to the allegations had been “inadequate.” He said he opened an investigation against Preynat after becoming aware of the allegations against him.

Cardinal Barbarin was convicted by a French civil court in March 2019 on charges of failing to report the allegations against Father Preynat, but his conviction was overturned on appeal Jan. 30.

The appeals court had accepted evidence from one of Father Preynat's victims, who had thanked the cardinal for his advice in bringing the former priest to justice. Cardinal Barbarin had told the victim that while his abuse had passed the statute of limitation, he should find more recent instances to bring to court.

Jean-Felix Luciani, the cardinal's lawyer, told reporters that “the court has just acquitted the cardinal on the fundamentals of the case, by indicating that no offence has been committed, for a number of reasons...and for one key reason in particular: that the cardinal never intended to obstruct justice.”

“This wrong was today righted … Cardinal Barbarin is innocent.”

Cardinal Barbarin, who is 69, offered to resign as Archbishop of Lyon after his 2019 conviction and he stepped back from the governance of his local Church. The acceptance of his resignation was delayed.

Papal spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said in March 2019 that Francis had chosen to not accept the resignation of the cardinal as Archbishop of Lyon but, aware of the “difficulties” of the archdiocese at the present moment, “left Cardinal Barbarin free to make the best decision for the diocese.”

After his successful appeal, Cardinal Barbarin's resignation was accepted March 6.

Bishop Michel Dubost, 77, who is Bishop Emeritus of Evry-Corbeil-Essonnes, has served as apostolic administrator of Lyon since June 2019.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

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Reflecting on Sunday’s Gospel, the pope said that “living a Christian life is not made up of dreams or beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to open ourselves ever more to God's will and to love for our brothers and sisters.”